Choosing a nutrition college

Many of you have written to me asking for advice on the right nutrition college. In the following article I will explain the different options available and what I believe you should be looking for before committing to a particular course. At the end of the article you will find my personal opinion, which reflects my view of nutrition; other people may have a different view.

Define your objective

Your choice of a college will largely depend on your objective. As a first step, then, be clear with yourself what it is you’d like to do with your nutrition diploma – would you like to work as a practitioner, seeing individual clients? Do you want to add nutrition to your arsenal of alternative therapies? Would you like to work in the food industry? Or would you simply want to use the knowledge acquired to enlighten and develop yourself? Your goal could well direct you towards a particular type of course. Note that most dedicated nutrition colleges tend to cater for would-be practitioners, and it’s in this light that this article was written. If you want to work in research or the food industry, a more formal university course may be more suitable.

 In a nutshell: Find a college that will teach you the hard data, enhance your soft touch and provide you with a sound and holistic frame of mind 

Choose the approach

Broadly speaking, there are two main streams in nutrition. The discipline-oriented stream, steeped in Western, logical thinking, which views nutrition as a science. And the holistic stream, often inspired by Eastern healing systems, which aims to teach nutrition from a broad perspective, with less reliance on scientific data. Nutrition courses on offer are likely to reflect one of these approaches – a rigorous, logical application of the theory of nutrition and supplementation versus a softer, person-centred attitude relying on equal measures of knowledge and intuition. Go for the one that suits your personality, tendencies and general objective. It helps if the college you’re interested in has a firm philosophy which can be explained in clear and simple terms and which you can relate to.

Topics to be covered

Regardless of the slant and emphasis, some important topics should be covered in any good course. They are:-

  • human physiology, anatomy and biochemistry (essential);
  • the different food groups, their composition and effect on the body;
  • macro- and micro-nutrients – in food, in supplements and in the body;
  • pathology – an overview of common symptoms and diseases likely to be encountered;
  • an overview of different nutritional diets, their pros and cons;
  • environmental and external issues relating to nutrition and disease;
  • taking and analysing a client’s case (including discussion of real life cases);
  • tailoring a nutritional programme to the individual

Bonus topics include evaluation of laboratory tests; counselling skills; and practice management. It would also be to your advantage if the course you are informed about other healing methods, e.g. acupuncture, homeopathy, osteopathy, NLP etc. There will come a time when nutrition will not provide the full answer, in which case it would be good to know what other healing methods may help.

Length of course

Take a good look at the length of course (and the resulting fees). Personally I would shy away from institutions that make courses too long and complicated. Any subject can be stretched over several years of study, and this stretching can sometimes make the course appear better or more thorough than others. Appearances can be misleading. It is possible to learn practical nutrition in two years; even one year in a good college will give you tremendous insight. If you intend to work as a nutritional therapist, you can cover the important theoretical issues in one year, and from there on, the sooner you get in touch with real people, the faster you will learn (this kind of learning will never stop, by the way). By the end of Year II, you should have acquired sufficient practical and theoretical knowledge to help people on your own. I would seriously question the need for a third and fourth year of study.

The hands-on approach

Following on from this approach, I’d encourage you to seek a place with a hands-on approach: taking case studies from early on; working on and analysing real-life cases; participating in clinics under supervision; and experimenting with your nearest and dearest as soon as possible. Nothing can get you learning faster than a hands-on approach, which will soon put glossy nutritional theories on trial in real people’s lives. You will find that different approaches suit different people, and that strict rules cannot be applied rigorously when dealing with human beings.

Practical aspects

Find out how much practical nutritional information you will get, including menu suggestions, hand-outs and written recipes for your clients. For some unknown reason this is one weak area for many colleges. However brilliant you may be at analysing and theorising, at the end of the day you’ll need to advise your client regarding his daily food intake; the likelihood is, s/he’ll need to change his regular diet. You may be au fait with the latest nutritional vibe, but your client will simply want three alternatives for breakfast please instead of the usual cereal. Menu ideas (and recipes to accompany them) will become a very basic working tool, and they are no less important than supplements, for instance. Does your future college actually dedicate any time to discussing, ehm, The Daily Bread, or will you be singularly confined to the loftier aspects of nutritional teachings?

Are supplements covered?

After food – your most basic and important working tool – you’ll need to know your supplements. Here again there are different schools, from those who prefer minimal use of man-made supplements to fill in a gap and no more, to those who believe in generous, precisely measured and lengthy supplementation. The two views are quite opposed, so it’s good to have some idea as to which approach is intuitively more acceptable to you. Whichever approach you go by, make sure the course you choose gives you a thorough understanding of minerals, vitamins and other supplements and their role in human health. Whether you are a minimalist or not, they will be an important tool and you should be skilled in its application.

Holistic additions

To round off your nutritional education, check if your desired course includes tuition on the variety of detoxifying techniques complementary to nutrition, such as fasting, enemas, colonic irrigation, bowel and liver cleanses, skin brushing etc. Nutrition is not only about what goes into your body; it’s equally (if not more) about what comes out the other side. For your clients’ benefit, you’d need to be able to recommend the right technique/s (when appropriate) that would help them in their quest for health.

Integrity

It may be an intangible thing to look for, but integrity is a quality I’d want from my chosen institute of study. Does the college look like it’s run by dedicated, committed people, passionate about the power of nutrition, or does it feel like a well-oiled money-making machine? Will you be required to try on yourself everything you might advise your clients to do (e.g. fasting, enemas, hair analysis), or will you be taught the theory and hope for the best for your clients? Will you feel free to ask questions and get all the support you need, or will you be expected to tow the line and shut up? Integrity is a subtle quality, but it can give an otherwise promising course a thoroughly unpleasant feel, so try and assess these things in advance.

Research, and research even more

Ultimately, your best bet is to do some desk research and identify your top three to four institutions. Read their websites or brochures thoroughly and write down a list of questions you may have. Then go to their open days and listen carefully. If they haven’t answered all your questions, don’t hesitate to ask, and make sure you get answers you can understand in a clear and simple language. Trust your intuition and the vibe you get. Did you feel comfortable being in the same room with these people? Did you like their message? Was it clear? Will their course give you what you want? Will they be open and friendly, or dogmatic and rigid? Once you’re satisfied intellectually, let your intuition guide you towards the right choice. Learn to trust your intuition; you’ll need a good measure of it as a nutritional practitioner.

My personal view

The French writer La Rochefoucauld once said “To eat is a necessity; to eat intelligently is an art”. After 14 years in nutritional practice, I couldn’t agree more. To advise individuals on the dietary habits best suited for their health, growth and development is indeed an art, and a responsible one at that. Now, to be a good artist you need a sound technical knowledge base, but equally you need creativity, sensitivity, empathy and a good measure of intuition and emotional intelligence. Whilst the technical and theoretical base can be taught to the nth degree, these latter qualities can only be enhanced (assuming you have them) by the right learning environment.

The Institute of Integrative Nutrition exposes its students to a large variety of nutritional theories and comes highly recommended 

Clearly, then, I am not one for the so called ‘scientific’ approach to nutrition. To me nutrition isn’t an exact science. It cannot be – it deals with people. What may be statistically significant in a large population may not be applicable to the individual sitting in front of you. Impressive words like ‘science-based’ and ‘sound clinical evidence’ seem almost ridiculous if you, like me, read dozens of scientific studies per week often presenting contradicting or ludicrous findings. Don’t misunderstand me, there is certainly room for scientific research and tests in the field of nutrition. But to rely on them too heavily, assume they will provide all the right answers and patronize other, ‘softer’, more holistic approaches is an attitude that would drive me personally away from any such prospective college.

The oldest forms of nutrition therapy (e.g. Indian Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine) have been in place for thousands of years before we Westerners became obsessed with dissection and analysis. There are good things in both Eastern and Western approaches and they can complement each other, so find a college that combines both; an institute that will teach you the theory of nutrition alright, but at the same time give you a more holistic, broader context, beyond numbers and figures, in which to understand the Individual.

By the same token, I would be suspicious of any institute that required advanced science degrees to allow you through its gates. To be a good nutrition therapist there is nothing you cannot learn in a couple of years of concentrated studies. Nutrition can be complicated and at times confusing, but it’s not rocket science. Nor will the best degree help if you don’t know how to listen and empathise, hardly the skills acquired at university.

Lastly, I’d prefer a college that puts more emphasis on food than on supplements. There is a whole load that can be achieved purely by making dietary changes and using natural techniques. Used wrongly or excessively, supplements can become as suppressive as medicines, and that’s not the idea.

In a nutshell: Find a college that will teach you the hard data, enhance your soft touch and provide you with a sound and holistic frame of mind. Good luck!

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